In 1802, the British began the Great Trigonometric Survey of India. Starting near the city of Madras, all of India was mapped using surveying equipment. The land was divided into a series of measured triangles which eventually reached Mount Everest. This was the first calculation of Mount Everest’s altitude. It was pegged at 29,000 feet. The currently accepted value is 29,029.
That survey took over sixty years and cost millions. Today, if you can get to the top of a mountain with an inexpensive GPS device, readout of the elevation is immediate, with about as good a margin of error as the first measurement of Mount Everest’s height. Last week I took my GPS to Frenchman Mountain.
Driving east on Lake Mead Boulevard, about a mile or so past the last houses in North Las Vegas, there is a place on the right to pull off and park. To the north, on the left, is Sunrise Mountain. A very steep road heads south, nearly straight up the hill. Unauthorized motorized vehicles are prohibited on that road, which goes to the top of Frenchman Mountain. The road is covered with loose rocks, easy to slip on. And did I mention that it’s steep?
Maybe picking Frenchman Mountain for trying out my new backpack was a little bit too ambitious. There are dozens of hikes in the Las Vegas area, most of them less strenuous than this one. For much of the hike I was looking at the ground to find a safe place to step, watching each foot make a little slow progress, maybe nine or twelve inches per step, yet I was breathing as hard as I would if I were jogging. I got a bruised toenail as a souvenir.
But the views are spectacular. After climbing the first hill you can look back at Lake Mead Boulevard, or forward to the “false summit.” After climbing to the false summit, the trail goes down into the “saddle” from where the Las Vegas Strip can be seen through a gap in the mountains. Then it’s up again, on the final ascent to the top. There at the peak you can see the Las Vegas valley on one side and on the other, Lake Las Vegas, Rainbow Gardens, and Lava Butte, with Lake Mead in the distance.
If you’re going to try this hike, bring water. I drank almost the entire three quarts of water I brought in my backpack. Despite its difficulty, the trail is a popular one, probably because it is so close to the city. I met Gary and Shawna on the trail — Shawna grooms dogs and Gary works at the MGM Grand. They both had some time off and had been looking forward to climbing Frenchman Mountain. An official-looking pickup truck also went up and down the trail several times while I was on it, so had I been in trouble, help would have been close by. Also, this hike has excellent cell phone coverage.
When I was a few yards below the peak (at the top there’s an inaccessible fenced-off area, with various types of antennas) I looked at my GPS. It gave a value of 4032 feet, plus or minus 25 feet. Considering that I wasn’t at the actual top, this agrees well with the published altitude for Frenchman Mountain of 4052 feet, roughly 2000 feet above the valley.
Of course, I wasn’t really there to measure the height of Frenchman Mountain. I was there for the exercise, the beautiful view, and the experience. I was there to measure myself against one of the more difficult short hikes in the area.